Friday, March 4, 2011

Kinglet for a Day

When a little olive-drab bird with black and white wings showed up at our feeder this winter, goggling at me with its white-ringed eyes, I scurried to the field guides to figure out what it was before it flew off to a more competitive birder's backyard, never to return.

Which, kindly, it did not do, choosing instead to become a regular in our garden. This gave me plenty of opportunities and time to figure out that it was a ruby-crowned kinglet.

The first part of this tiny bird's name comes from a field mark that one is hard pressed to spot: a small patch of red atop its head, which is (1) only present in the male and (2) only on display when it's agitated about something. The "kinglet" is a reference to both this scarlet crown and the bird's diminutive size. It could just as well be called the yellow-footed kinglet, as it's got black legs and lemony feet, but I guess those field marks would be even harder to see.

For such a little bird--barely four inches long--it warbles loudly and vigorously. It's also quite fecund: a female may lay up to a dozen eggs, a figure that marks the largest clutch-to-bird-size ratio among North American nesters. The nest that holds this cargo is a pendulous one, suspended high in a conifer.
There's the red crown!

Unfortunately (as in, too bad for me, but fine for the kinglets), I won't be seeing dozens of baby kinglets (what could be cuter?) this spring or summer because although kinglets winter in lowlands west of the Cascade Mountains, they migrate north into Alaska and Canada to nest or higher up in the mountains.

So for now I'll just enjoy watching this fellow's frantic antics at the suet feeder, where he flaps and hovers and clambers all over the wire cage to get at the seeds when the bushtits are not monopolizing it, looking constantly astonished at his luck thanks to those white-ringed eyes.

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